As the new Congress ramps up in the coming weeks, energy policy will quickly top the list of priorities. Debates over the Keystone Pipeline, natural gas exports, and climate change may dominate, but they won’t be the only issues demanding Congress’ attention. In the West, the link between energy development and water use has never been more dire. And for the Colorado River Basin’s 40 million residents —and the water they depend on — a critical piece of legislation on the docket is the PIONEERS Act.
The PIONEERS Act seeks to jumpstart the non-existent oil shale industry in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for private gain at the expense of Colorado River Basin water resources. Oil shale, the poor cousin of the shale oil and fracking boom, is technically feasible to extract, but in 100 years of dogged attempts by the federal government and the oil industry, extracting it has never turned a profit. Now provisions in the PIONEERS Act attempt to improve the economics by providing federal subsidies in the form of cheap public land and below-market royalties.
In securing passage of the PIONEERS Act in the past three sessions of Congress (each time the bill has been thwarted in the Senate), Colorado Reps. Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton have maintained that oil shale development, should the technologies be successfully commercialized, would require little water. This claim seems to be based solely on public assurances made by the oil industry. However, recent water court filings by oil shale developers now cast doubt upon these assurances, and it’s time for Lamborn and Tipton to reconsider their endorsement of the industry.
In recent months, oil shale industry leaders Chevron Oil and ExxonMobil have undercut Lamborn and Tipton’s lead talking point. Chevron filed a lengthy report in Colorado water court showing that the company’s proposed oil shale development activities alone would require up to 125,000 acre-feet of water per year. That’s enough to supply more than half of Denver Water’s 2.3 million customers. ExxonMobil is seeking rights to even more water than Chevron, saying oil shale’s water demands “are anticipated to be higher than that of other sectors.” Other companies across the Colorado River Basin are also pursuing water rights to support oil shale operations.
For those of us who actually depend on Colorado River water to live, from the headwaters in Colorado to the delta in California, these projected water demands are alarming. By 2050, when oil shale supporters predict a mature industry might flourish, the competition for water could be extreme, pitting vital agriculture and recreation economies against a burgeoning population and water-intensive energy demands. If oil shale indeed develops at a large-scale, the family farm — the bedrock of our rural communities and a critical economic driver for our region — will face a full-court press from industry for water rights.
Even without oil shale development, water providers throughout the Colorado River Basin will be hard-pressed to meet existing and future demand. Colorado’s Water Plan, published in December 2014, indicates that by 2050, the gap between water availability and demand will be roughly 500,000 acre-feet, more water than the cities of Denver, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque collectively use in a year. Oil shale gets scant attention in this analysis, but developing these deposits would increase the gap and further strain water supplies.
As James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, has noted, “No single issue will have a more direct impact on Colorado’s future than our ability to successfully and collaboratively manage our life-giving water.” This challenge is not unique to Colorado. States throughout the West are grappling with complex supply and demand questions.
As Congress takes up the PIONEERS Act and considers whether to fast-track oil shale development in the Colorado River Basin, it’s time to examine supporters’ key talking point that oil shale won’t use much water. We must remember the court filings and hold our elected officials accountable. There is too much riding on the myth that oil shale wouldn’t require much of a far more precious resource: water.